Lainey Lui: My husband does all the housework. Should I feel guilty?

Elaine Lui asks: Can I call myself a ‘strong independent woman’ when I can’t even figure out how to unclog a toilet?

by
Elaine Lui on housework
Illustration, Bijou-Karman.

My husband, Jacek, went away recently on a golf trip for six days. During that time, I kept up with all three of my jobs, walked an average of 10 km a day with our dogs, prepared all my meals, took out the garbage, and — as he was gone during the worst snowstorm of the year in Toronto — I also shovelled five times. My friends and colleagues texted regularly to make sure I was still alive; one even offered to lend me her son to help out with some of my chores. (I seriously considered the offer, but then I realized I would have felt bad about them driving over in the storm.) It was also a little embarrassing, checking my phone every few hours and seeing yet another person checking up on me.

When Jacek came home, the house was a mess — inside and out. (As it turns out, I was shit at shovelling and hadn’t realized that I’d created snowbanks that blocked our garage.) But, as he told our friends later on, he considered it a success because I didn’t “burn down the house.” I was not offended. We’ve been married 15 years; he teases me about my lack of household prowess all the time.

A few weeks later, our hot water tank burst. I got home from work just after it happened. Jacek was in the basement, had already mostly dealt with the flooding, and was on the phone with the repair service to arrange for a new tank to be installed. We would be without hot water for at least the night, probably longer. Something you should know about me: I shower at least three times a day (in the morning, after work, before bed). I had an early sales meeting the next day. All I could think about was how there was no way I could take two cold showers and make it to my meeting presentably, in a positive state of mind, and be able to impress our clients. So I immediately had a meltdown and threw myself onto the couch in despair. Half an hour later, Jacek told me to pack an overnight bag because he was taking me to a hotel — to preserve HIS state of mind. So while my husband stayed at our hot water-free home with our dogs, I spent the night eating room service while tweaking my notes for my sales pitch, and then sleeping comfortably in a king-size bed with crisp sheets and fluffy pillows. But the whole time, I felt a cloud of guilt and shame hovering above me.

Should I feel bad for being so useless? Am I too spoiled? Am I less-than for not being able to handle household adversity? Does this undermine my feminism?

Jacek and I run a business together. I’m the “face” of the operation — our site, Lainey Gossip, is named after me, I’m the head writer, I manage and edit content, and I’m largely responsible for site promotion. I’m also a co-host on CTV’s The Social and a senior reporter for CTV’s etalk. I also regularly attend speaking engagements and write a monthly column for Flare. He handles the business side of the site (website administration, advertising, financial planning). In addition to all of that, however, Jacek — who works from home — is also the chief executive of our household.

It’s been this way since 2007, when he quit his former job to work full-time on Lainey Gossip. It was an easy transition for him. He was excited to build our brand, to be part of something that was our own. That said, it was confusing at first for his Polish immigrant parents — amazing, loving people but of a different generation — who not only had a hard time grasping what it meant to work in online media, but also whose marriage is rather traditional in terms of division of labour. By contrast, in my home, Jacek does all the cleaning, all the household maintenance, he is the primary caregiver to our dogs, he pays the bills, he even looks after my parents. He makes sure that our home life is organized so that I can focus on my work.

As Stephen Marche shares in his new book The UnMade Bed: The Messy Truth About Men And Women In The 21st Century, written with his wife, Toronto Life editor Sarah Fulford, he too is the boss of their household, the lead parent responsible for the day-to-day care of their children, having largely put aside his career aspirations so that his wife could pursue hers. And he has been judged for it, for not assuming the “traditional” male position in the home, his masculinity questioned as he spends time feeding his kids and handling the household. Though Marche reveals that he has found fulfillment in his family’s choices, he writes that many men have struggled with the changing role dynamics in straight relationships as women continue to reimagine their roles in public and in private.

In my relationship, this has not been an issue. Jacek has embraced his role and his responsibilities. He has never felt like his masculinity has been diminished by facilitating my public prominence and I, in turn, very much appreciate — and am attracted to — his modern masculinity. I do wonder though if my modern femininity is somehow lacking.

Last summer, Jacek dropped by my friend Duana’s and found her mowing the lawn. He chuckled when he told me afterwards, amused because that is just SO Duana. In our eyes, she’s a superhuman. I was like, “Of course she was mowing the lawn.” I don’t even know where the lawn mower is at my house, let alone how to use it. And the thing is, unlike Duana… I don’t want to know. I don’t care enough to know. Do I judge myself for this? Do I judge myself for not wanting to shovel, not being able to tough out a couple of nights without hot water?

I kind of do. And I kind of don’t.

I do judge because so many capable, awesome women have proven time and again that they are self-sufficient and resourceful and independent. Duana, for instance, the aforementioned lawn mower, is a screenwriter who also published a book, wrote several TV scripts and regularly contributed to my website — all in the first year of her child’s life. And then there’s me. I feel like I’ve let down the team by not being self-sufficient and resourceful and capable when it comes to home maintenance. How can I call myself a “strong independent woman HEAR ME ROAR!” when I can’t even put together a piece of Ikea furniture or figure out how to unclog a toilet? How can I assert my worth when I can’t function without regularly-scheduled hot showers? Who am I to be named one of the 100 Most Powerful Women in Canada when I can barely de-ice my own sidewalk? Where is my power when I can see my own flaws and deficiencies but have done nothing to address them and/or improve upon them?

And at the same time, I don’t want to judge myself because even though I have identified where I’m lacking, I also know what I’m good at. I’ve leaned into my skills. I’ve taken opportunities where ever available to make the most of those skills and build on them. I’ve created a platform from which to use to my voice. I am trying every day to use my voice in a way that moves the conversation forward on gender equality…

…but still, I went to work the morning after the hot-water tank hotel stay and instead of unapologetically telling people that I spent the night at a hotel because I wanted to be in top form for the meeting, I called myself a baby, pathetically incapable of making it through the night without a hot shower, adding to the previous narrative that I’d already been perpetuating — that I’m useless at housework and that’s something to be ashamed of.

I’m still trying to figure out why I did this. And whether or not I deserve the self-flagellation. All I know is that right now I desperately want to tell you that I’m very good at doing laundry, like it’s my only household chore and I’m excellent at it. Stephen Marche writes in his book that “housework is the macho bullshit of women.” Did I just prove him right?

Elaine Lui appears on The Social and etalk, is the founder of Lainey Gossip and the author of Listen to the Squawking Chicken.

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